Interview with Robert Place: Tarot Illustrator & Historian
I was living in London when I bought Robert place’s Alchemical Tarot. I have been interested in Alchemy since discovering Carl Jung’s work on Alchemical Art in the late 1970′s and since been very aware of those forces at work in my life. So I was very excited to find this Tarot deck and even more excited at the idea of combining Tarot and Alchemy. The deck is also extremely beautiful and poetic. Robert Place’s style is so crystal clear and refined; his choices and use of symbolism inspired. But he wasn’t just inspired once—-he has gone on to be create four more decks and has two more in progress. The Alchemical Tarot was followed by Angels Tarot, Tarot of the Saints, Buddha Tarot and The Vampire Tarot. His recent history of Tarot, The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination has been described as one of the most important books ever written on the Tarot. Works in progress include Tarot of the Seven-Fold Mystery (looks gorgeous!) and the Facsimile Italian Renaissance Woodcut Tarot.
In my research, I discovered that Robert is also an internationally renowned jeweler. If his jewelry is anything like his Tarot decks it must be amazing. He is a really nice man and we had fun doing this interview by email over several weeks.
All images are copyrighted by Robert M. Place and are used with his permission
Aline: I bought your Alchemical Tarot shortly after it was published. I love Alchemy, but I was also drawn to the clarity your images and the interesting combination of Alchemy with Tarot. I would not have taken you for a Vampire fan. Is there an Alchemy of Vampirism? Does the vampire have a place in the alchemical universe? If so what would it be?
Robert:. The first Tarot I designed was the Alchemical Tarot. The thing that I liked most about it was that it was inspired by a vision of how the alchemical Great Work, the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone, and the Tarot trumps were related stories. In fact alchemy seems to have influenced the original designers of the Tarot. So after I completed the Alchemical deck I wanted to find another story that was in sync with the trumps in the same way. My next inspiration was to make a Vampire Tarot because I saw it as a related story but the publishers were not ready for it at that time.
While working on the Alchemical Tarot I teamed up with Rosemary Ellen Guiley on the book for the deck. At that time she was also working on a couple books on vampires and I did some illustrations for her. I had always been enamored with vampire stories and I began to see that the literary vampire was related to alchemy. In fact in the novel, Dracula, alchemy is one of the disciplines that Dracula is supposed to have mastered.
The Philosopher’s Stone is described as a stone but not a stone, sometimes it is a liquid or it is immaterial. But it always described as red in color. The Stone is a mystical substance that can improve any substance that it comes in contact with, It can change lead into gold, it can cure any illness, it can turn an ordinary man into a sage, and it can prolong life indefinitely. This supposedly happened to the 14th century alchemist Nicolas Flamel. According to the stories, he created the Stone in the early 1400s and he and his wife are still alive. So you can see that the how this relates tot he vampire–both are looking for a red liquid that can prolong life indefinitely.
Aline: I had thought vampires might be connected to the nigredo- the shadow as well. You discuss that in your book. I am reading the book to the Vampire Tarot. Its really good.
Aline: I have another question coming from the artist point of view. I am curious about your artistic path. I see the influence of the medieval woodcuts in your work. I wonder about your inspiration. Was Alchemical art an early influence on
your style and choice of subject matter?
What drew you to Alchemical art, the art or the study of Alchemy?
How did Tarot come into your life? That’s always a good story.
I have more, but I’ll save them. This is fun because we are busy people
and its nice to find a way.
Robert: I have always known that I was an artist since I could first pick up a crayon. As a child, I would look for inspiration wherever I cold find it. My first models for how to draw came from comic books but while in school working on projects I became fascinated with the pictures in encyclopedias and began to develop a delineated style like the ink drawing that illustrated the encyclopedia. I was always the class artist and I spent most of my time in grammar school working on large historic scenes that were stapled on bulletin boards.
When I was in fifth grade, we studied the Classical gods and my interest really peaked. I put together a booklet with drawings of all of the gods and goddesses that we studied. I drew them from pictures of Greek statues and the teachers and other adults were blown away by how realistically I could draw. It was the gods that put me over the edge artistically. I think that I lived another life in ancient Greece–maybe several.
When I was in college in the 1960s I discovered the occult. I spent a lot of time in the library looking at books on occult subjects and started visiting an occult book store in Hackensack, New Jersey, and another in Greenwich village. I still have books from those shops. The one in the Village also sold powdered incense and I can still smell the incense when I open those books. One of my favorite books from that time is The Picture Museum of Sorcery, Magic, and Alchemy by Emile Grillot de Givry. This book is filled with magical and occult pictures from old woodcuts and engravings and it turned out to be an important book that continues to feed my inspirations. My girlfriend at that time was into the Tarot. She used the Waite-Smith deck, which was about all you could get in the 60s. But in the Picture Museum I saw pictures of antique Tarot’s from the 1400s to the 1700s and I started creating my own deck based on the Tarot of Marseilles. I only completed four cards, though, and then, seeing how much work it was going to be, I lost interest.
I was not involved with the Tarot again for many years but, in 1982, I had a dream that changed that situation. In the dream, I received a phone call from a dream law firm in England and the ringing of the phone in that dream brought on an intense clarity that makes the dream impossible to forget. Even now I can easily visualize the dream. When the phone rang, I remember thinking, “how can someone call you in a dream? I didn’t know that that could happen.” When I answered the phone, a dream operator verified that I was Robert Place and then connected me with a woman from the dream law firm. The second woman told me that I had an inheritance coming from an ancestor in England, and that it had great power. She said that it was called “the key,” it would come in a box from England, and that I would recognize it when I saw it. When I woke up the dream had been so vivid that I expected the box to be at the foot of the bed. It wasn’t, but, within a few days, my friend Scott came to my house to show me his new Waite-Smith Deck. My head turned in his direction of its own will and then my eyes decided to focus on the deck in his hands. I immediately recognized it as my inheritance. In a few more days my friend Ed gave me a Tarot of Marseilles deck. He said that he just had a feeling that I needed it. After that, I went to New York City to buy my own copy of the Waite-Smith deck. With these decks, I started on my study of the Tarot and Western mysticism.
Aline: That is an amazing story! It sounds like Fortuna had plans for you—or the Gods were calling again.
Robert: That is how I started my obsessive study of the Tarot. I soon realized that most of the books on Tarot did not make much sense historically and that the occult correlations for the images were not that helpful either. Instead I looked at the pictures themselves and let them talk to me. The pictures soon led me further into the study of alchemy, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, mysticism, and magic, which I continued for many years.
Now, let’s jump ahead to 1987. By this time my study of mysticism and the occult had become even more obsessive. Although I was making my living as an art jeweler, I was spending more and more time reading and less and less time on my work. One day in August, I was looking at my old friend The Picture Museum and I became fascinated by a 17th century alchemical engraving representing the Philosopher’s Stone in an abstract way. The design depicted a heart in the center of a cross with images of the four elements assigned to each corner, an arrangement called a quincunx. As I looked at this image, I realized that the heart in the center was symbolically interchangeable with the dancing nude in the center of the World card and that the symbols of the elements assigned to the corners were also interchangeable with the symbols of the four evangelists in the corners of the World. Pictures like this hold tremendous power and I had just unlocked the power in this one. It was like a key opening a door in the back of my mind and out of this door came a flood of images. Within seconds, I saw that all of the trumps in the Tarot were interchangeable with alchemical images and that when that interchange was complete it was evident that the Tarot’s trumps were telling the same story as the alchemical great work, the Magnum Opus. The Tarot could be read as a text on the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone, the magical transformative substance that could prolong life.
Aline: How remarkable!
Robert: I began working on The Alchemical Tarot to illustrate this revelation and I started writing the book (although I had not considered myself a writer before this) to explain my vision. It took me seven years and the deck was published by Thorsons in England in 1995. Rosemary Ellen Guiley teamed up with me on the book. As for the images, besides The Picture Museum, I relied heavily on Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy, and The Golden Game, which is full of 17th century alchemical engravings. In keeping with the vision of the deck, I made conscious references to images from these engravings. My style of drawing is more like a woodcut than an engraving though. The biggest influence on my style of drawing in The Alchemical Tarot is Albrecht Durer’s woodcuts. I have a Dover book with all of his woodcuts and whenever I was stuck on how to render or shade a form with lines I would look and the book and see how Durer would do it.
Aline: Yes, I can see the influence of Durer in your work. But also the look of Alchemical art itself which is mostly woodcuts.
Aline: One more question: You have designed 5 Tarot decks. That is amazing!
Now, I painted a tarot deck in the 1990′s that was never published.
During the four and a half years it took me to do that, many weird things happened.
I began to wonder if the concentration on the cards was effecting my life. I did not paint them in order
but received visions that came when they wanted to an I painted them in that order.
Did you find that working on Tarot caused things to happen in your life?
If so can you share a story about that?
Robert: It is funny that you should ask about the effect designing the cards has on the designer because that is actually part of the reason I stopped when I first started creating a deck in college. I noticed that the card that I drew would manifest in my life. The last one I did was the Tower and after that I had a falling out with my girlfriend. So I stopped. When I started on The Alchemical Tarot though things were different. For one thing I no longer used the cards as a way of making predictions about the future. I came to see the Tarot as a way of conversing with the Higher Self and obtaining wise advice. Every card has wisdom to impart and if that was what manifested after I did the design there was no problem. What started to happen is that I would include details in the picture, guided by my intuition and not really know why I was doing that. It was not until later when I was using the cards that I began to understand some of these details and was able to read them.
For example, when I designed Justice I placed the female figure on a stone base in the center of the picture and placed two columns behind and to either side of her. Her arms extended to either side holding her sword in her left hand and her scales in her right so that each tool lined up with the column in the background. When I did this, I was thinking that this was an odd way to compose the picture. It was not something that I would usually do because I would be afraid that it would look awkward. However, it seemed to work and I went with it. Then I spontaneously added flames and a column of smoke emerging from her crown, like she was a furnace, and I put an eye in the center for the flames. It was not until I was looking at the picture later that I realized what I had done was to relate the figure to the Kabalistic Tree of Life with its three columns. The scales on our left related to the pillar of severity, the sword on our right related to the pillar of mercy, and Justice’s body formed the central pillar with the column of smoke rising toward the divine presence. That the scales were on the side of severity made sense because one has to be severe or unemotional to find the true balance without any prejudice. Also the sword is a symbol of action or punishment and this does need to be tempered with mercy or forgiveness.
Aline: The archetypes are very powerful. They have to well up in your subconscious mind when you dwell on the symbols and then putting them paper “manifests ” them in some way. It is interesting that that was more managable when you stopped using them for divination —-perhaps your approach prevented the dark side being triggered…
Is there anything you would like to add? Are there any new projects you would like us to know about?
Robert Right now I am working on a book about the Tarot exhibition that I curated at the LA Craft and Folk Art Museum. The exhibit was a huge success. It got two articles in the LA Times and record attendance. This book will be a catalog of the show providing examples of important Tarot decks from the earliest 15th century Italian decks to the latest designs by contemporary artists. It also will have additional illustrations comparing the Tarot designs and symbols to other Renaissance and occult art and even to Egyptian art. It features all of the trumps from my Annotated Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery, which I actually completed for the exhibit, and all of the trumps from my Alchemical Tarot with related examples of alchemical art.
People who are interested in finding out when it is complete should watch my web site, link to me on Facebook, or sign up for my email newsletter.
There is information at my web site:
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